How Cooking Can Help Prevent Teen Homelessness

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This guest post comes to us from KCRW Producer Evan George.

Teach a kid to cook a pork chop and you feed him for a lifetime.

That’s the thinking behind a pretty innovative mentoring program run by the restaurant chain Tender Greens. It’s a hand up — getting a food industry job — rather than a hand-out.

The restaurant picks a few foster youth and young adults referred to them by Covenant House, which is a shelter in photo3Hollywood. The students attend classes, field trips, and work one day a week in the restaurant. If they finish this 3-month internship, they’re offered a job.

To see who the program helps, I tagged along on one of their weekend field trips. The class has toured Scarborough Farms, where the restaurant gets vegetables, and a free-range chicken farm. But this particular Sunday they were headed to Re-Ride Ranch — a small pig farm about 70 miles outside of LA — to see where the restaurant gets it’s pork belly and bacon.

I caravanned up with two students and two chefs. We were greeted by Vicki Ayers. She and her husband Lefty own the farm. She showed us around their farmhouse where you’re greeted by a chalkboard in the living room that reads, “Doing our part to help pigs reach their potential.”  Then Lefty told us what he had in store for the tour group that day. “We’re gonna feed the hogs and probably castrate some pigs,” he said, smiling at us city slickers.

photo2Lefty put the two students, Paulette Covarrubias, 20, and Joshua Saurbier, 21, straight to work. He had them doing everything from mending a fence that his horses had busted through to helping corner an angry sheep to mixing together the wheelbarrow of pig feed.

Lefty and Vicki raise Berkshire pigs, about 150 of them. They let most of the smaller ones run around free rather than sit in pens. They also let them live several months longer and grow them bigger and fatter, partly by feeding them a high-fat, high-protein mix of rolled oats and raw organic almonds.

“Our chefs say they can taste the nuttiness in the meat,” Lefty said.

After Joshua and Paulette spent more than an hour mixing and feeding, mixing and feeding, I asked them what it was like to see where the pork comes from.

“It gives me a good sense of satisfaction to know that they’re treated with some respect,” Paulette said.

Much of the Sustainable Life Project focuses on restaurant skills like how to handle a knife and work front of the house.

It turns out that the Friday before, the class had been trained in cooking pork belly. Paulette ran me through what they’d learned.

First, she said, they sauteed the pork belly “skin side down, obviously, and let it get a nice rich color with a little olive oil, then we made a sauce for it – chicken stock, leeks, some onion and green onion – we reduce a little white wine and added celery carrots. Then you put that in with the pork belly in the oven let it cook.” Bam.

She, along with Joshua, got offered a job at Tender Greens in Hollywood this month. So clearly they have been paying close attention.

Tune in this Saturday to hear Evan’s story on Good Food.